Arcs of Instability: U.S. Relations in the Greater Middle East

By Kemp, Geoffrey | Naval War College Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Arcs of Instability: U.S. Relations in the Greater Middle East


Kemp, Geoffrey, Naval War College Review


What do we mean by "the Middle East"? There is no single, agreed definition of its political or geographic boundaries. Geographers, historians, journalists, and government bureaucrats all use the term, yet they frequently mean different things.

The Department of State speaks of "the Near East," to include North Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf countries-but not Turkey, since that state is a member of Nato. In contrast, the Department of Defense divides the region another way. U.S. Central Command has responsibility for military operations in a zone that includes Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf Cooperation Council states, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Excluded are the Caucasus, Turkey, Israel, Syria, and India; the first four remain under the responsibility of European Command, while India falls under Pacific Command.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the newly independent republics of the Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) and Central Asia (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan) raised new questions about where exactly the Middle East begins, where it ends, and whether it can be comprehensively, consistently delimited.

How then should we define the Middle East? One option would be to use the phrase "Greater Middle East," which has gained some currency. So formal a designation, however, implies a degree of precision that is not presently justified. It assumes there is a generally accepted definition of which countries to include and which to exclude (as in the case of continents-say, the line between Asia and Africa). In fact, however, selection is bound to be arbitrary, because rationales for including one country and excluding another are based on judgments as to what the determinant variables are. If one is primarily interested in strategic geography rather than religion or political alliances, one necessarily selects countries differently from those who would wish to analyze, say, the Muslim world or the Cold War confrontation states.

For our purposes, let us include the Caucasus, Central Asia, and South Asia, as well as Turkey and the traditional Middle East countries in a broad definition of "the Greater Middle East." That brings us to a new term requiring definition-the "arc of instability."

In the vast Greater Middle East are several arcs of instability, not just one. The most obvious arc follows the historical "Fertile Crescent," from the Nile Valley along the Mediterranean coast through Lebanon and Syria into Mesopotamia and the northern Persian Gulf. Two other arcs are notably unstable, one running from Turkey through the Caucasus to Iran, the other from Iran through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. Within these three arcs lie most of the dangerous conflicts that worry us today-Arab-Israel, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Iraq-Kuwait, Iraq-Iran, Turkey-Iraq, India-Pakistan, Afghanistan. Three countries have nuclear arsenals (Israel, India, and Pakistan); Iraq and Iran aspire to be nuclear states. If proliferation continues, Turkey and Saudi Arabia could join this list.

It is necessary to remember two other geographical concepts that are worthy of note in connection with arcs. First, in an area stretching from southern Russia to the southern Persian Gulf lies a "strategic energy ellipse" that contains over 60 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and approximately 80 percent of the world's proven natural gas. This ellipse will be one of the key strategic prizes in the geopolitics of the twenty-first century. Second, since President George W. Bush's 29 January 2002 State of the Union address, we have had to take into account another geographical phenomenon, an "axis of evil" that stretches from North Korea to Iran and Iraq.

Given this geopolitical framework, let us focus on three developments since 11 September 2001 that concern U. …

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